Thinking About...General Assembly

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)

I spent 44 hours in Mobile, Alabama, last week, attending the 44th General Assembly of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. General Assembly is the annual meeting of the church where important (and sometimes tedious) work of the church is done. I left this year’s Assembly encouraged by the spirit of the denomination and hopeful about the direction our church is headed. Since returning to Richmond, I’ve been thinking about the General Assembly and a few of the things that encouraged me.

The biggest issue before General Assembly was a resolution on racial reconciliation. In fact, that was the main reason I went to Mobile this year. Of the 63 overtures considered at the meeting, two-thirds of them focused on the topic of racial reconciliation. My last post was dedicated to explaining the sin of racism and the need for corporate repentance in the PCA. At the meeting last week a representative committee (appropriately called the Overtures Committee) collapsed those forty-some overtures into one that best represented the heart of that matter. That committee, which, it is worth noting, was the first such committee ever chaired by an African-American, then collaborated to further fine-tune the language of the resolution into its final form (PDF).

By the time the resolution made it to the floor of the Assembly there was a swelling confidence that the overture would pass. It was a picture of a grassroots church operating through variously channels towards a consensus, towards a place where the church could speak with one voice. When the overture was formally proposed there was debate. There was some resistance. There were calls to reconsider the resolution next year. But in the end, as the Assembly voted, there was strong agreement that this was the right thing to do. The vote passed 861-123-23.1

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And then came the most significant part of the 44 hours in Mobile. The moderator of the meeting asked all of us to rise and we sang together, “It is Well With My Soul.” We worshiped. The corporate repentance of the Church led to the corporate worship of the church. We sang with one voice,

“My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

The Assembly also recognized that an overture, however well-crafted and well-supported, is not enough. The true measure of the call for repentance will be the fruit of that repentance in the denomination and in our local churches. To help create a pathway for that fruitful repentance, two other overtures were passed:

1) The General Assembly passed an overture that created a Study Committee on the topic of racial reconciliation. Forming a study committee is about the Presbyterianist thing we can do, but it’s an important step. By it the Church is saying, in effect, we need to know more about how to be a reconciled church. As one African-American PCA leader2 summarizes, “The goal is to make sure that twenty years from now, we aren’t still seeing a denomination whose membership and involvement resembles the America of the 1950s rather than the 21st century.”

2) General Assembly also passed an overture creating a Unity Fund, with the express purpose of providing financial resources “to help raise up future generations of godly, reformed African American and other minority Ruling and Teaching Elders.” Words matter and money matters. With the Unity Fund we are putting our money where our mouth is. The high value the PCA places on well-educated and properly-trained leaders can create a barrier to entry for many minorities, particularly because of the ways that much of the education and training is captive to majority culture normativity. The Unity Fund will help minorities get through that barrier.

However symbolic and important the decisions last week in Mobile, the true effect of Overture 43 will not be measured by the actions of the General Assembly but rather by the faithful actions of local churches and individuals within those churches living a trajectory of true repentance for racial sin. The resolution itself points to a pastoral letter (PDF) that helpfully outlines some potential fruits of repentance like:

  • Don’t tolerate racist attitudes, language, and practices among the membership of the church.
  • Read publications by authors of other ethnicities.
  • Make friends. Do not underestimate the power of friendship.
  • Be intentional. We don’t naturally gravitate toward those who are different from us. We naturally gather in similar groups. We have to do something unnatural, or rather, supernatural to break the cycles of social sameness that hinder racial reconciliation
  • Be intentional with discipling minority members for church leadership.

We, who call Richmond, Virginia, home, because of our city’s past, have a particular opportunity to model repentance in line with racial reconciliation. Local Richmond Pastor Ben Campbell has challenged the Church in Richmond to lead the way in envisioning what it might look like for the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Reconciliation. Acknowledging and repudiating our past sins should lead us to walk anew in the power of the Spirit as we realize together life as a reconciled community.

To that end, we at City Church will be constituting a multi-cultural task force to help us faithfully and thoroughly live lives of continual repentance in this area. This task force will be open to all who care about these issues and want to grow in their own understanding of how we can better live out our calling as a House for All people.3 They will point out our continuing areas of blindness. They will light the path forward for our church as a whole, to make worship more welcoming, to develop minority leadership, to foster partnerships within our city that are reflective of its diversity.

Arguably the most welcome result of this overture so far is the conversation that it has catalyzed within our denomination. Our local work similarly starts with conversation. It starts with studying Scripture and studying history. It starts with studying ourselves to see what sin remains there. To this end, on Thursday, July 7th, a group from City Church will meet to discuss the topic of Race and the Church. Come and listen. Come and learn. Come and repent. Come and sing of the blissful thought that we bear our sin no more. Come and be reminded that, through Christ, it is well with our souls.

1The 3 vote totals represent Yes-No-Abstain. 2Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African Amercian Network. 3If you are interested in being a part of this task force, please email val@citychurchrva.com.